In undergrad classes (1957-1961) I was on scholarship and had to maintain a B average, which I did. Luckily, I had enough A’s to offset my two lowest grades: a C in acting and a C in philosophy of religion. These are probably the two courses that have been most meaningful in my life during the half-century since. Part of the reason I got low grades is that I was thinking about the issues too much to focus on tests of content. Both professors were exceptional: Alvina Krause and Paul Schilpp. I want to talk about Stanislavski’s Method acting as AK taught it.
Basically, this approach to acting was very similar to Mark Johnson’s understanding of embodied meaning, using sense memories to manage the actor’s inner life in a way that communicated the meaning of the character in a play. We worked on our bodies as instruments — doing exercises of posture, voice and movements — but also increasing awareness of each other and building empathy. A big component was studying cultures and how they pattern emotion and reaction, what the embodiment people might call “framing”.
But always the base of operations was the senses, including internal body feedback. It is now a pretty well-confirmed premise that the brain’s index to what it knows, particularly memory, is filed according to senses associated with the content so that it is not frivolous to think of grasping a concept in terms of the sense-ambiance of the moment, for the senses interact to create a sort of globe that contains knowledge. This is why Johnson speaks of “the aesthetics of human understanding.” The director of a play aims to create just such a “globe” of sight and sound in a way that will illuminate the meaning of the presentation by being both vivid and coherent. It should offer feeling, not just evidence. The same is true of religious ceremonies.
When intensity is high and the actors have properly entered the inner lives of their roles, something palpable happens that is fabulous but also a little frightening until the actors have a bit of experience: the boundaries melt, onstage becomes realer than real, and somehow the audience is able to participate in that. Even actors working for film find this to be true, though it’s more difficult for a number of reasons.
Paula Ragusa and Dick Benjamin
Still, it isn’t necessary to have an audience or at least not a big one. These moments happened in acting class with only a few observers or even when working in practice halls. The most powerful idea coming out of embodiment theory is the ability to “merge” or attune with other people. In terms of music, it’s being perfectly in tune, and in that context it’s also very powerful. Bob Scriver, who was famous for the quality of his high school orchestras in the Fifties, used to say that if junior high musicians learned to play perfectly in tune, they could sound as good as professionals. Witnessing true engagement between actors is much like hearing music perfectly in tune.
A friend who expected to become a psychiatrist used to observe AK’s acting classes with me, a practice that was neither encouraged or discouraged so long as observers were quiet. I met him when he was my assigned biology lab partner. Much of our discussion after these acting classes was about rationality versus emotionality. He was from that kind of student (usually male) full of introspection, trying to reason out the meaning of life instead of experiencing it. I was the other way around, skipping in and out of logic, which was why we were friends — one of those opposite relationships, which can be very intimate, but maybe not physically. He was not a “cold” philosopher: his close cohort called him “Hume.” I loved him dearly and we remained friends after I left for Montana and he went on to a Ph.D. and teaching.
I’ve repeatedly sketched out my current understanding of how persons grow through life, beginning from conception, continuing through the school years, on into adulthood and through until death. After one drastic pruning of brain cells in toddlerhood, there are several points of brain expansion — actual neuron development and connectome thickening — as at the adrenarche, puberty, and a crucial reconfiguring in early twenties that has no name except maybe maturity. By this time a person is no longer confined to what’s inside one’s skin, but through empathy can extend awareness into all living beings and the world that sustains them. Interaction, attunement, attachment, concatenation, and other subtle things with multi-syllabic names have embedded mere embodiment into a system of understanding and action. It happens all by itself and may not be conscious at all.
Russians have not been so confined by the Platonic roots of thought that have made an obsession of what was once Enlightenment, which actively rejected emotion as a distortion, some kind of reversion to animal life, not as real as what Johnson calls “propositional” thought. This elevation of math-driven and introspection-developed rationality, as free from emotion as possible, has become demonic in its ability to enforce dogma and justify domination. It is the engine of terrorism and the enablement of crime.
And it’s stuck. Even the UU’s with their list of principles that are supposed to be bulletproof, can’t get past them in order to join the universe and act with effectiveness. Few can grasp that insisting on a list of principles is what the principles were supposed to oppose, a path to arrogance. Once a person has arrived at a totally logical and convincing “proof” of something without awareness of the emotional structure of their own brain and the frame of their own family and culture, it is very hard to give up. Efforts to enforce a rigid conviction of “rightness” is at the base of many a malignant family.
Of course, the Russians, for all their inquiry into the physical dynamics of emotional life, have not learned how to manage their rage and romanticism into a viable government. Maybe it is the anguish of always slipping back into scarcity and brutality that drives their interest in operant conditioning, inherited mind, and the sharing of melancholy. Or maybe their environment is so harsh that it limits them somehow. Humans can never entirely overcome the planet.
"The Cherry Orchard"
Making oneself transparent is not always easy and is sometimes painful. Sustaining empathy for other people takes energy and courage. They don’t always want to be understood, particularly if they are victims of stigma that has taught them that the only safety is secrecy and deception. For them, to be detected and understood is to be targeted. Therapists and playwrights investigate under very specific and guarded circumstances and even then some inner dynamics are explosive when exposed to “oxygen.” Actors and writers use various personas to buffer and reinvent, but the strategy doesn’t always work.
Community, if it is trustworthy, sustains individuals, keeps track of who they are so they can explore. Therapy circles have never gone out of fashion, though some have turned toxic. Others have devised a protocol, a system that guides discipline, that guarantees integrity, until it as well becomes corroded and worn. Something like that has happened to both Freud and Stanislavski.